20 Watts

ISSUE 22 | Q&A: An Interview with Portugal. The Man by 20watts

John Baldwin Gourley of Portugal. The Man sat down with 20 Watts for a nice long chat. Here's what he had to say!

Part of our Issue 22 coverage!
PREVIEW: Click to access music and more info on Portugal. The Man!

Experimental indie rockers Portugal. The Man started out in Alaska in 2004 and have since released five studio albums and played countless shows, including one at Syracuse’s Westcott Theater last year. Coming off the release of their latest album American Ghetto, Portugal. The Man frontman John Baldwin Gourley agreed to talk with 20 Watts for a nice, long Q&A session.

20 Watts: In a short amount of time, you guys have amassed a pretty impressive catalogue. Some might even make the comparison to The Beatles… What’s been your favorite album that you guys have recorded so far?

John Gourley: Well, I know this is going to sound silly but every time we go into the studio I say that I’m working on my new favorite record. I feel like American Ghetto, to me, where it may not have come together in a conventional way, or where it may not have been a band just jamming away in a studio, it was a really fun record, and it was put together in a really great way. I actually got a call from one of our friends the other day, and she was talking about American Ghetto and how funny it was when I went out there [to the studio], and I had called her up and had said to her, “For some reason [our manager] Rich thinks I can write a record in 10 days without any material.” And she said, “Well I’m pretty sure that you can go out there and make a record in 10 days, and then you’re gonna come back and go on tour.”

And it worked out really well. Those are my favorite albums—Censored Colors (2008) and American Ghetto. Censored Colors was two weeks in the studio, and American Ghetto was 10 days.

Portugal. The Man in concert

20W: Last year’s Satanic Satanist got you guys a lot of cred, and everyone was talking about your live shows last year.

JG: Yeah, yeah—it was actually fun playing in front of bigger audiences at these festivals. And again, it was so great getting to step in with three years of practice. Not that we wouldn’t have been excited to get that sort of attention right away. But it’s easier now that we can sit back and recognize what it was, and the plan that we’re still having with this band. Even in those early years… it’s really great that we stayed away from everything for a bit, and it’s good that we took that time and
got to know each other musically.

20W: Yeah, I could imagine if you guys had blown up into a Vampire Weekend-type band right off the bat…

JG: Definitely. I mean, what a mess. That band, too. If you see that band live—I really like what they’re doing… I think. I think I like that band, but I don’t know. I heard them playing at Lollapalooza, and it was really funny because I was talking to myself saying that they were a really good band, but were playing the sloppiest set ever. That’s what I had heard about that band after somebody told me it was Vampire Weekend. Somebody told me that “Yeah, they kind of blew up out of nowhere, and never really got to play many shows together”—which kind of makes sense [laughs].

20W: For American Ghetto, you said you put it together in 10 days, but what was your main influence behind it, since it’s a lot more sample-based and psychedelic than a lot of your other stuff?

JG: Well, during Satanic Satanist (2009), we had done pre-production [for American Ghetto], which we had never done before. So there was like a month and a half before recording the American Ghetto demos. So I guess it was just sort of a build-up of ideas…And during that time I tried speaking with Anthony Saffery (formerly) from the band Cornershop, who was the co-producer of Satanic Satanist and the producer of American Ghetto. And we tried talking about doing this almost like a hip-hop project. I picked out the album title before we even started the record. But it came down to the fact that we’d done beat-based music in the past, but we hadn’t done it in two albums—you know, fully through two albums, we hadn’t really touched it. So Anthony and I were talking about doing this ’90s hip-hop/rock vibe, and not like Limp Bizkit obviously, more in the sense of a band like what Cornershop was doing, or The Butthole Surferes, or bands like that. So we just decided to do this sort of ’90s project, which was really great because we got Tjinder [Singh] from Cornershop to sing on a couple tracks and to chop up a couple beats. We got Rob Swift [formerly] of the X-Ecutioners to do some scratching on a few songs. And then Steve Smith from Dirty Vegas to play percussion again on this record. But it was kind of a cool collaboration of the ’90s.

Portugal. The Man's latest album, American Ghetto

20W: How are you able to shift gears so quickly? You guys have had a different sort of sound on every record. So how do you shift gears to make it go from sometimes this folk vibe, to more blues-based, and then indie music, etc.?

JG: I think a lot of what we do going into the studio is kind of born out of what we do with our lives. We’ve just kind of worked together since the beginning.…and we like all different kinds of music. I would hate to be in a position where people are saying, “That’s that rock band, and we’re waiting for that follow-up rock record with those rock songs, with those anthem choruses and all of that.” I don’t want to be that. I want to be the band that always makes music, and really loves it.

I want to make a hip-hop record at some point. I have some doubts it will come out under Portugal. The Man though [laughs]. Every band – every rock band – has talked about that at some point: “Man, I wish I could be the backing band for Ghostface Killah,” or, “I wish we could be the backing band for Cool Keith, just for a tour, even.” I would be up for that for no money at all. I’d even drive behind Ghostface in a van.

20W: You guys took a different strategy when you eleased American Ghetto. In the past couple of years, it seems like every time Portugal. The Man’s new album comes out, you’re blogging that it’s leaked once again. So what was the basis behind the sort of embargo against press and publicity releases until the actual day this year? Was it solely for preventing the leak purposes?

JG: No, not necessarily. It wasn’t just to prevent a leak. And it wasn’t just to prove something [laughs]. Though we did give the record to some friends and it didn’t leak, so we did give it to some people and it never leaked. So that was kind of fun to see that our friends didn’t leak it.

It was more for what the record was about, which was just going into the studio and doing it – just throwing it down. We just threw this record down in a very hip-hop way. It’s called American Ghetto. It’s about just working together to make something, as opposed to building it up, and building hype around it and all that. It’s more like I just wanted to give it to people. I just wanted everyone to have it at the same time.

20W: I’d say that having everyone get it at the same time keeps up that air of mystery, as to what the album’s about. It’s not like anyone’s heard it. You’ve seen how many times in the past couple years this has happened – Veckatimest from Grizzly Bear is one example – where everyone had an opinion on it two months before it came out.

JG: They were so bummed about that, too, which was awful. It was awful because it was such a huge record for them, and they’ve worked so hard. I saw when it leaked, and I felt so bad… And to not only see it leak, but also the massive leak that it was.

20W: The crazy thing about that was that even with the leak they still charted in the top 10 on Billboard on the official release date. Could you imagine what that album would have sold had it not been for the leak?

JG: Well they’re a real band. We played with Grizzly Bear.…Maybe it was six years ago. It was so long ago, and they’ve been a band for such a long time, but even then they were tight, and even then they were great musicians…But yeah, that was a bummer to see that happen.

20W: What’s been your favorite concert experience of your career so far?

JG: Probably the first concert I ever went to, if we can talk about those [laughs]. I think seeing Pantera for the first time – that was my very first concert. It really made me want to play music for whatever reason – maybe not in that scene [laughs]. But it was just one of those really great moments, as well as when I moved down from Alaska and started going to club shows. I really hadn’t seen a lot of club shows outside of the club we have in Anchorage. But yeah, when I came down and got to see all of these club shows with these awesome bands that actually drove me to start this band. Y’know, bands don’t really make a ton of money making music. You should just do it because you love it, and just make music that you want to make.

20W: Who has been your favorite band to tour with over your career?

JG: We’ve toured under some really nice bands like Circa Survive and Minus the Bear and RX Bandits, who were probably the most fun to tour under. For sure they were all just really, really good people. With Minus the Bear we had no idea what to expect, but we met them and hit it off pretty well – we’re a pretty easy band to get along with. I wouldn’t expect that we wouldn’t get along with them. But definitely, with them was some of the most fun we’ve had on tour.

20W: What would you say is on tap for Portugal. The Man for the rest of 2010?

JG: Well, we just got out of the studio – actually it was a few weeks ago – doing preproduction on the follow-up record to American Ghetto. So we’ll probably be in the studio sometime after Coachella. But we are playing Coachella and Sasquatch, and a couple more festivals that as of right now I don’t know. I think we’ll just be touring and making music. Hopefully what we’ll do is we’ll make this album in the spring and then tour through the year and then make an album this winter.

It’s so funny to me because when you’re playing music – you know it’s not like you, as a writer, interview one band a year. You interview a lot of bands, and when you’re not interviewing, at school you’re writing essays, so you’re writing all year. I feel like we have such a lax job that we want to know it better. We want to write music, and we don’t want to do it half-assed, we want to do it right and have fun with it.

INTERVIEW BY John Cassillo

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